Tow Center

Google’s Dragonfly will intensify surveillance on journalists in China

December 11, 2018
Photo: Adobe Stock

“Our objection is to those forces of totalitarianism,” said Google co-founder Sergey Brin of China’s internet controls in an interview with The New York Times, “I think that in the long term, they are going to have to open.” It was 2010, the year Google ostentatiously left the Chinese market in protest of state censorship on online expression.

Brin’s prediction did not come true. In the subsequent eight years, Google developed a news app, a cloud service, and a censorship-compliant search engine code named Dragonfly for the Chinese market, which it deliberately hid from not only from its privacy and security teams but from almost all of its 88,000 employees. By the end of last week, close to 700 Googlers had signed a petition protesting the decision on Medium, promising to resign if the company doesn’t drop Dragonfly.

“Many of us accepted employment at Google with the company’s values in mind, including its previous position on Chinese censorship and surveillance, and an understanding that Google was a company willing to place its values above its profits,” reads the petition, written by a dozen Google employees and dated November 27. On November 30, a group of Google employees started a fund to financially support coworkers who walk out over Dragonfly. They raised $100,000 in under three hours.

What would Dragonfly, which has reportedly been getting ready to launch since at least August, mean for the Chinese public if it really does come to fruition? And what would it mean for the nation’s journalists?


  1. Dragonfly would be part of the Communist Party of China’s surveillance apparatus

At a San Francisco tech conference in October, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai publicly acknowledged Dragonfly for the first time. “It turns out we’ll be able to serve well over 99 percent of the queries,” Pichai said.

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However, building a search engine approved by the Communist Party of China (CPC) is more than merely censoring 1 percent of queries. It will have to make sure that each query can be easily and reliably traced back to the individual making it. This is routinely done by linking every query to a mobile phone number, which Google has agreed to for Dragonfly. Per Chinese telecom industry regulations, each mobile phone must be registered with government-issued ID and real names. And China’s Cybersecurity Law requires all companies operating in China to grant the government full access to all data pertaining to users within the Chinese border. This means the state will have access to all Dragonfly users’ identities, real-time locations, search history, and biometrics if the user has features like facial recognition or fingerprints unlock. Data obtained in this way has been used to incriminate and convict individuals.

Assuming Chinese journalists use Dragonfly for research the same way journalists outside the country use Google, these laws mean the Chinese state will be able to learn how journalists discover a story, establish contact with sources, and report the story out. Then the state can prosecute anyone with involvement in the process at their discretion.


  1. A CPC-compliant Google would be unlikely to protect data from apps like Gmail and Google Docs

If Google is willing to trade user data to gain access to the Chinese market, what else is it willing to trade? For many years, Google’s Gmail was the email service of choice for Chinese dissidents, investigative reporters, and human rights advocates, because its servers are hosted overseas and it offered extra encryption. Many news organizations such as The New York Times and The Guardian use Google’s corporate email services. In fact, one of the reasons Google left China in 2010 was a series of attacks on Gmail linked to the Chinese state’s attempts to obtain these sensitive communications.

If Google did decide to formally submit to the demands of the Chinese government, it would not be the first American tech company to do so. In 2005, Chinese journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to a 10-year imprisonment for “providing state secrets to foreign entities” and the key evidence was the log-in IP address and content of a number of emails via the Yahoo email service, which Yahoo turned over to the Chinese authorities. In 2003, Yahoo helped the Chinese authorities to convict two other dissidents, Li Zhi and Wang Xiaoning, by providing their IP addresses and email contents.


  1. Dragonfly would aid the CPC in broad censorship

The party has been largely successful in controlling historical narratives and news. The post-1989 generation has grown up with no idea of the pro-democracy protest on Tian’anmen Square. Newsrooms are not allowed to contradict the state news agency’s version of stories and sensitive data pertaining to people’s day-to-day lives were often banned for publication. Dragonfly would both disseminate state-approved news and repress information it deems sensitive.

According to Google employees with access to Dragonfly’s code, the search engine has a long “blacklist” of search terms containing numerous phrases, such as “human rights” and “Nobel prize,” for which search results would be altered. And it will only display Chinese air quality data from an unnamed source in Beijing, rather than a variety of sources as it does from the US. With no data about the Nobel Peace prize, the application would help diminishing the legacy of Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner who passed away while serving an 11-year sentence for writing a pro-democracy manifesto. Dragonfly users would not have access to reliable air quality data living in a country where many regions suffer from hazardous air pollution.

ICYMI: An algorithmic nose for news

Concealing information from the public has had devastating consequences. In the spring of 2003, Chinese media were instructed to collectively conceal a severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Guangdong and Beijing, which contributed to the rapid spreading of the disease while delayed effective response by the medical community and the general public, let alone the worst society-wide panic in recent memory. The ban on reporting was eventually lifted, but the episode hurt the credibility of the Chinese media, especially after the cover-up was extensively reported in Western media.


  1. Dragonfly would embolden other authoritarian states regarding censorship

It has been eight years since Brin’s prediction, and it is Google executives, not the CPC, who have started to falter. “There’s a shifting set of grounds of how you think about that problem, and how you think about the issue of censorship. The truth is, there are forms of censorship virtually everywhere around the world,” John Hennessy, chairman of Google holding corporation Alphabet, recently told The Wall Street Journal.

Dragonfly represents not just the CPC’s oppression of Chinese people, but its corrosive influence over liberal forces far beyond China’s borders. As controller of the world’s largest censored digital information space, China sets the example for online censorship for all other illiberal regimes. The fact that Google seems willing to enter the market on its terms could send a worrying message to other governments worldwide. And as one of the world’s biggest tech companies and tech monopolies in the world, Google’s compromise also sets a dangerous precedent for other tech companies.

Blocked since 2009 and without any servers in the country, Twitter serves as an important forum for free speech for a small but loyal group of Chinese users, who access the service using Virtual Private Networks. Some of them call it the “freedom tunnel.” Leery of their influence, the Chinese authorities routinely detain prominent activists and force them to delete posts. Some have exhorted Twitter to resist the same official pressure from the CPC that is being applied to Google. “The Chinese people think you are some kind of god,” artist and activist Ai Weiwei told Jack Dorsey, founder and CEO of Twitter, at a conversation between the two men held at New York’s Paley Center in 2011. “You created a possibility for people in this very dark room to see a ray of light… to freely give their opinion.”

For anyone working to get the truth out anywhere in the world—average citizens, journalists, competing tech companies—Dragonfly would be a demonstration of the growing power, effectiveness and confidence of authoritarian regimes, and the constantly retreating borders of press freedom and free online expression.

Mia Shuang Li is formerly a Beijing-based Chinese reporter and a researcher for the Beijing Bureau of the New York Times from 2011 to 2016. She is currently pursuing a masters degree at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.